The Alaska labor force may be headed for a historic test: building a North Slope gas pipeline.
But it remains an open question how many of those thousands of high-paying jobs could be filled by state residents versus nonresidents.
Even if the long-sought gas line linking the Slope's vast gas deposits to Lower 48 markets is delayed for years, Alaska faces a labor crunch. Many workers in the state's major industries are nearing retirement age.
"We do know there's a gap," said Gerry Andrews, who runs the Alaska Department of Labor's gas-line job education and training initiative.
Under the proposed timeline for gas line construction, many of the skilled workers needed for such a project -- welders, truck drivers and engineers, to name a few -- will retire before it begins, economists say.
Even though no one has committed to build a gas line yet, the Labor Department is under a legal mandate to prepare Alaskans for jobs in construction and operation of the pipeline.
The mandate was set three years ago by the Palin administration when it signed the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act. But for years, some educators and in the state's construction industry had been beating the drum for better training opportunities.
"There's a grave concern about our work force," said Rick Rios, the Anchorage School District's coordinator of career and technical education.
Rios is part of the statewide push to better prepare students for gas line jobs and reverse the aging of the state's work force. He said he's already seeing a few results. Three years ago, he said, the state funded one construction academy to provide hands-on training for high school students in Anchorage. Now, legislative funding has expanded construction academies to five school districts, with nearly 1,000 students signed up for classes this year.
Rios said the students he talks to are eager for work. "We had 20 seniors sign up for a (carpentry) institute over spring break -- an eight-day, intensive study," Rios said.
"They gave up their whole break for the 60 hours to be prepared for a job," he said.
Engineers are also in high demand for future pipeline work. Even now, the state is already facing a dire shortage of engineers, industry officials said last week.
An estimated 35 percent of the engineers in some disciplines in Alaska are nonresidents, according to the University of Alaska. Statewide, the university system is seeking to double the amount of its graduating engineers by 2014.
"That probably doesn't even touch what's needed," said Todd Bergman, a former state educator who now runs the Alaska Process Industry Careers Consortium, which assesses work force needs for the oil, gas and mining industries, among others.
Unions in Alaska said they are trying to boost the number of the people they train despite the slow economy.
Charles Engblom, apprenticeship coordinator for the Ironworkers Local 751 in Anchorage, said his union has 70 fewer apprentices in Alaska than it might need for a gas line project, based on some rough numbers he received from the state over a year ago.
"We've got right about now 50 apprentices," he said.
He said he's gearing the program to "hopefully" handle the amount of apprentices needed for a pipeline project, but he pointed out that for now, there aren't a lot of new jobs to put them in. "Last year was lean for us and this work season is similar to last year," he said.
MEETING THE MANDATE
Since Palin signed AGIA, the Labor Department has identified 113 occupations -- from pile-drivers to paramedics -- that would be needed for gas-line construction and operation.
Here are some other things the department has done relating to its gas-line mandate:
--Worked with other government officials, private industry, and unions to establish training academies for people interested in careers in construction and engineering.
--With the Alaska Department of Education, began designing a plan to streamline the state's career-training for kids and adults.
--Assisted with the creation of new apprenticeship programs, including electrical and drilling.
But the Labor Department is still lacking some key information to meet its mandate.
Just how many jobs are needed for a pipeline project? Previous estimates have ranged widely, from 4,500 to 9,000.
Two North Slope gas line proposals are now being pursued by pipeline companies. More recently, the state has begun talking about building a smaller-diameter gas line from the North Slope to the Railbelt to supply the region's energy needs.
In general, it doesn't matter if a long-sought pipeline ends in Canada or Alaska. Or, if the state first builds a smaller, in-state pipeline that ends somewhere in Southcentral. Any of the projects will require lots of people to dig dirt, weld pipe, cook camp food, and drive trucks. And a lot of people to operate and maintain the line for decades.
The state has asked the competing pipeline companies to submit their manpower needs for pipeline construction and operation for a line from the North Slope to Alberta, Canada or from the North Slope to Valdez.
The Labor Department expects to have that information by the middle of July, Andrews said.
From that, the Labor Department can crunch numbers to determine how many jobs of those jobs can be filled from the state's existing work force, Andrews said.
State and industry officials agree that gas line construction will bring nonresident workers to Alaska. But, they said, the work conditions will be different than the hectic 1970s construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, when thousands of nonresidents moved to the state.
For several reasons, they say, the peak work force for building a gas line will probably be smaller than the 28,000 people required for the oil pipeline. Depending on how it is built, the gas line may not require bulldozing a new right-of-way. The gas line will also offer less jobs over its life span, too. Since the gas would be pressurized, there would be no need to build and maintain a series of pump stations along its path.
On the other hand, gas-line construction jobs will last longer than the trans-Alaska oil pipeline construction jobs, Andrews said.
"Instead of a two-year window, it will be spread over a longer period," he said.
"We will use less individuals building this at any one time, but more man days," he said.
Training for oil industry jobs
Training opportunities for gas-pipeline-related construction jobs and careers:
--Alaska Construction Academy: Training courses for high school and adults available in five Alaska school districts.
--King Career Center: Course work for Anchorage high school students to prepare them for various careers; for those eligible, on-the-job training and college credit.
--Alaska Works Partnership: Union-supported gateway to construction and pipeline-related apprenticeships.
--Alaska Vocational Technical Education Center: technical certificate programs for many job fields.
--Alaska Process Industry Careers Consortium: career guidance and school-based training to support oil, gas, mining, seafood processing and other major industries.
Copyright (c) 2010, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.